Another tough year ahead?

About a year ago Tourism Whistler, and others, became alarmed at the accommodation issue in the Olympic year. At that time it was becoming apparent that national Olympic committees, Olympic sponsors and others who were expected to stay in Whistler during the Games were, in fact, choosing to be based in Vancouver.

At about the same time it was realized that Vancouver was actually competition for Whistler, the first signs of what has become the economic nose dive were showing up. Oil prices started to escalate and the price of everything that involved transportation - which is just about everything - climbed as well. Bear Stearns collapsed. And in California and Florida, housing prices started to decline.

Against this backdrop, Tourism Whistler brought in tourism consultant Peter Yesawich, first to speak to board members, again later in the summer to speak to all Tourism Whistler members. Yesawich brought an outside perspective to the state of the tourism business, including some hard data on the strengths and weaknesses in the markets Whistler pursues.

And this was done with the expectation that business would be down, across the board, in the winter of 2009-2010 because of "Olympic aversion." The push last year to get Tourism Whistler members to commit their rooms to VANOC, rather than hold on to them with the expectation there would be a windfall closer to Games time, was often followed with the phrase, "because we don't want two below-par winters in a row."

All of this was foreshadowing for the period until the Games are over; a forecast based on world events, the Olympics, the seasonal nature of the tourism business in Whistler and our tendency, as individuals, to do what benefits us most.

We're now about halfway to that point, 12 months until the Games are all over, and it's been a rough ride. Efforts to convince national Olympic committees and Olympic sponsors to base their operations in Whistler have been largely unsuccessful, the off-season room rates in Vancouver and a deteriorating economy being as much to blame as condo owners with delusions of bigger payoffs.

Fears that the economy would deteriorate this winter were understated by almost everyone. The U.S. economy, which sets the tone for the Canadian economy and much of the world's economy, is in much worse shape than people recognized. And it may not have hit bottom yet.

Proving the theory that misery loves company, snowfall was also understated for most of this winter. While the weather has been ideal for Olympic test events, it hasn't excited powder skiers and boarders.

The combination of the economy and below-average snow has meant less business this winter, which has meant layoffs and lower revenues for businesses and many workers. But surviving this winter isn't the end of the challenge. The ride may get rougher before it gets better.

If this summer's roadwork, and single-lane alternating traffic between Function Junction and the village becomes a hassle, visitor numbers could be affected. If gasoline prices skyrocket again; if the economy doesn't begin to show signs of real, sustained recovery; if the housing situation is exasperated by people trying to cash in on the Olympics, summer may not provide much relief from the tough times of this winter. The Pemberton Festival's hiatus doesn't help, either.

And then there's next winter. Efforts to mitigate "Olympic aversion" have been ongoing for some time: there's Whistler Blackcomb's signs at the access lifts telling everyone that 90 per cent of ski terrain will be open to the public during the Games and there's "The Truth About 2010" postcards.

But it's not just the period of the Olympics next February, it's the entire winter that is a concern. As visitors talk about returning in the winter of 2010-11, Olympic aversion is becoming more tangible. And the concern is compounded when it's added to the below-par winter just concluding and the worrying summer ahead. Twenty-four months is a long time to be below "normal" business levels, particularly in a seasonal local economy.

It isn't all doom and despair, of course. As Whistler Blackcomb's Stuart Rempel states in a letter to the editor this week, many Whistlerites don't realize the marketing efforts of Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and lodging companies in other markets. Those efforts, including discounted rooms offered by hotels, have helped maintain business for all of Whistler this winter.

But it may take additional creative efforts to maintain business over the next year. Sun Valley, for example, is trying to use second-homeowners as emissaries for the resort. In Whistler, the Squamish-Lil'wat Cultural Centre is an attraction still unknown to many residents, let alone potential visitors. Festivals, theatre productions and concerts are all potential tourist draws, and could be boosted through the Cultural Capitals of Canada funding.

In short, it's been a tough year, and another tough year may lie ahead.


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